Posts Tagged ‘Landscape Art’


Sunday, August 26th, 2012


  Life has a way of inhabiting even the strangest of places. And in doing so, it makes those places themselves come alive, in a bigger way. As any artist knows, it is the small touches that make the larger artwork extraordinary. I was drawn to the pinnacles and cliffs of the desert the first time I saw them. It wasn’t just out of scientific curiosity, or an interest in a landscape different from the one with which I was familiar.

  It was that in many ways, the rocks themselves looked alive. They had colors of their own – yes – but superimposed upon those were abstract patterns and splotches of yellow, orange, green, and gray. And then there were the dripping streaks of brown and black, looking so much like dark chocolate frosting looks as it spills casually off the side of a layer cake.

  In some such places, and when I was alone, I would be still for a moment, let my mind calm, and just take in the view in front of me, without trying to analyze it. Detailed and complicated patterns would appear among the more readily apparent boulders and fractures, turning the scene into a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and figures. Jackson Pollock himself couldn’t have displayed more impressive works of art.

  A coating of life is what is responsible for that look – small life creates bigger life, so to speak. Growths of lichens, desert varnish, and moss are the “paints” upon the land. But they are not just “on” the rocks indifferently. They are connected to the rocks – the rocks give them life. Tourists from other climates ask me about the colors and patterns on the formations around the Valley of the Sun. Maybe we take it all for granted, but they notice them right away. I explain that they are living things, and they grow very, very slowly.

  The brightly colored patches and spots that look like “splatter” paintings are lichens. Lichens are actually two life forms living together: algae and fungi. There are many different “species” of lichens; hence there are many different hues and textures. The algal cells are enclosed in masses of fungal filaments, all in compact arrangements that clutch onto barren rock surfaces. The algae conduct photosynthesis and provide the fungi with nutrients, and the fungi provide the algae with protection. Neither could make it on its own in such a harsh environment.

  There is a budding science of lichenometry – the use of lichen growth as an age-dating technique – but it is still in an inexact stage, and there are many factors that influence growth rates. However, in Arizona, when you see a spot of lichen that is, say, several inches in diameter, you can probably assume that it is on the order of a few hundred to a few thousand years old or so.

  Desert varnish (or “rock varnish”, as it is sometimes called) is what we call the dark, surreal staining that cascades down rock cliffs and spires in our area, and it too, takes a long, long time to develop. The varnish is a very thin layer of manganese and iron oxides, together with clay particles.

  But the key to that covering’s existence is a community of tiny bacteria which live on the rock surface, and process the mineral compounds into a protective coating. By sheltering themselves with the minerals, they shield themselves from heat and drying-out, and intense sunlight. The dripping effect (on the landscape) is a result of their having an easier life where water occasionally flows, but desert varnish also coats many rocks just sitting out in the open. They look black and metallic in the sun’s glare.

  Ancient rock art all over the world owes a lot to those little one-celled creatures. Prehistoric humans systematically and artistically pecked through desert varnish on various rock surfaces to produce what we call petroglyphs. The thin, organically-caused patina masks the lighter color in the rock underneath, and it is that showing-through of the rock itself which forms the desired image.

  Moss is a plant that also grows in small communities on rocks, but you don’t see it in too many places in the desert, as it needs more water. Look for it in spots where the sun never shines, and where water can flow periodically. Most of the time it is a dark-gray or black, soft, puffy growth. The time to see it in its glory is right after a good rainfall, when it comes alive again, and is a bright, emerald green in color. It is also much softer to the touch, then.

  All of this life is part of the surface of the rocks. The next story will look at the life inside of the rocks, and, there is plenty of that, too.

Exhilaration & Loathing

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012


  Organic. That’s the word I gravitate towards when I think of the landscape of southern Utah. A myriad of canyons, incised into bands of vermilion, mauve, ivory, ochre and chocolate — rocks from the depths of time in living color.

  It’s a fractal place, if there ever was one. Big gorges branch into smaller gorges. They, in turn, divide into even smaller canyons, subdividing and subdividing, right down to the seemingly microscopic level. Life forms of all sizes cling to those tributaries, however big or small, as those very furrows are the arteries of water, the lifeblood of this high desert plateau. The panorama is rumpled, folded, and convoluted like some kind of living tissue, like a dissected brain of gigantic proportion.

  Just recently, I drove north along one such magnificent artery: White Canyon. There the road skims over surrealistically-shaped Permian sandstone ledges, and I was just beginning a long awaited August vacation. I looked from my speeding vehicle down into the winding chasm I was paralleling, hoping to catch sight of some ancient Anasazi ruin, that (of course) no one had ever noticed before.

  That highway, which runs between the “middle-of-nowhere” towns of Blanding and Hanksville, is among the most inspiring drives I have ever seen. That I could spot some prehistoric cliff structure was not impossible. There are plenty in those canyons. There used to be a lot more.

  I crossed several bridges, looking down into overgrown streams below. Even there, the rich smell of murky stream water in the hot sun reminded me of the life-giving power barely flowing beneath the steel girders. A cobalt sky overhead only accented the scene. Now the road wound up and up, away from the water, through immense vertical cuts in the rock strata, blasted and carved away to oblige the road — as if to enforce upon us all the fact that humans can do anything once they put their minds to it.

  High above the Colorado River, the biggest artery in the plateau, is one of the most expansive viewpoints anywhere. I got out of my car, as I always do at that spot, ready to bask in the vista for a few moments. I walked over to the edge, and looked down.

  Unprepared for what I saw, I gasped (it was only a short one), and then a big, wide smile started to break across my face. I almost started to jump up and down with delight. There you go, boys. Try water-skiing on that. What goes around, comes around.

  Far below, where wakes from motorboats and “personal watercraft” once crisscrossed Lake Powell, lay mudflats. Miles and miles of mud, baking in the sun. I couldn’t believe it. In all my years of driving back and forth across the American West, I had never seen anything like that. I thought again of that idea of “humans being able to engineer anything”. Now, really?

  Do we really think we can just remake Earth’s surface without consequences?

  There is probably no greater symbol of the defacement of the American West than “Lake” Powell — actually a reservoir. It is formed behind Glen Canyon Dam, the concrete wall that stands further downstream in the way of the once relentless Colorado.

  And there is probably no greater insult to a true nineteenth-century American legend, the first explorer of Glen Canyon, than to have his name affixed to what he surely would abhor. John Wesley Powell must be rolling over in his grave, smiling, too, at the cubic miles of mud and silt accumulating in Glen Canyon, and he would probably say to us now, “I told you so”. At least he got to see its splendor. So the symbol is not a mark of progress, after all. It is a symbol of hubris, indeed, even death.

  In my picture, you can see what looks like a long, sloping runway above the mudflats, below the cliff. That is the huge boat launching ramp of the now-closed Hite Marina. Or was the ramp, I should say. The reservoir is almost 100 feet below “full pool”, and therefore lies hundreds of feet from the bottom of that ramp.

  A result of drought in the West, this situation will almost certainly get worse, for the foreseeable future anyway. Combine that with the fact that when you block a river as muddy as the Colorado, lots of silt drops out of suspension, and it starts to build up. All of that grayish sludge you can see now is covering a lost world.

  These realities will render Glen Canyon Dam useless — for either storing water, or for generating electric power. Somehow, people just don’t get it — how fast it is happening here. Those motivated by politics would have us all believe that dismantling the dam is some wacko idea, selfishly promoted by those awful environmentalists. That the aforementioned are so skilled at calculated nuance and misinformation does little to dismiss the facts.

  The Colorado River averages a sediment load of about 100 million tons a year. That’s about 30,000 dump truck loads every day. And as of the time of this writing, the reservoir is dropping about one foot every nine days! The drying-up of the reservoir, coupled with the filling-in by silt, means that it is losing on both fronts: from the top down, and from the bottom up. If you don’t believe me, drive there and look for yourself.

  Beneath that mud and what’s left of the water, are countless archaeological ruins, and the remains of the most intricately beautiful canyon on Earth. By most estimates, present climatic conditions will actually worsen, causing an increase in the rate of the water level’s decline.

  Eventually, the silt accumulation will start to block the dam’s outtake portals, making operation of the power generators unsafe. And by then, even more irreplaceable canyon beauty will be lost to the muck.

  In recent publications, I have written about the modification of Earth’s geology by humans, and how it can be either good or bad. This modification (Glen Canyon Reservoir began filling in 1963), will go down as one of the most calamitous and short-sighted ever.

  If for no other reason, Glen Canyon Dam should be demolished, and what’s left of its reservoir drained, as an admission of our arrogance and conceit in living with nature. Let life return to the landscape.

  If we had real vision, and cared at all about people yet to come into this world, we would leave them something of magnificence and meaning, not the entrenched wasteland that is inevitable under current policy.

Gold Dust

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

The classic view of Superstition Mountain, from the Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona.

  Let’s talk about gold. Not just any gold, but lost gold. If there’s one thing more appealing than found gold, it’s lost gold. Because that means that the gold – maybe an unknown, vast quantity of it – is still out there somewhere, just waiting to be found. Like fairy-dust sprinkled from a magic wand to vitalize some situation, a dusting of the lure of gold can make a place attract people – those people looking to make it big.

  Sometimes they win; sometimes they lose.

  And sometimes they die.

  We have our own place of temptation right here in our backyard: the Superstition Mountains. For the past century or more, this rugged range of desolate, inhospitable, and yet beautiful rock formations just to the east of Phoenix has drawn countless treasure seekers. The goal? A mysterious cache of gold, or gold ore, or maybe even a mine itself. Who knows which? That’s part of the mystery, and the draw of the place.

  In 1891, one Jacob Waltz, a German immigrant and prospector, known locally as the “Dutchman” (men from both the Netherlands and Germany were then frequently called that in America), died in the Phoenix home of a friend, Julia Thomas. On his deathbed, Waltz described to her the location of a gold deposit of which he knew, deep in the Superstition Mountains. But in his possession then were only a few gold nuggets, and he never had appeared to be a wealthy man.

  Yet, Ms. Thomas and two of her friends, the Petrasch brothers, believed that there was something to his story, and they set out to find it. They spent weeks roaming the wilderness, searching for whatever they could find, which ended up being nothing. Julia Thomas did find a way to capitalize on the Dutchman’s fate, however. She drew up and sold some “treasure maps”, as well as told Waltz’s story to at least one freelance writer, who in turn embellished it even further.

  Hence, the story grew, and multiplied. And so today, there are almost too many “Lost Dutchman” stories of which to keep track. (And remember, it is the gold that was lost, not the Dutchman.)

  There are variations which include Mexican miners (who supposedly originally found the gold), Apache Indian raiders (who killed the Mexicans and maybe even Waltz’s sometime mining partner, Jacob Wiser), high-graded gold ore stolen by Waltz himself from near Wickenburg and stashed in the Superstitions, and even Jacob Waltz having murdered his partner to hoard the gold for himself.

  The wildness of the terrain, the relentless, blazing sun and lack of shade, the dearth of water in the remote desert canyons of the Superstitions, and a colorful cast of crazies, desperadoes, and dream-seekers who have over the years spent countless time seeking out the rumored riches have only added to the luster of the story.

  The details of all these legends and maps do not matter so much as the fact that they exist, and that the story of the lost gold endures – the fascination goes on. Over the years more than two dozen adventurers have lost their lives, in one way or another, while exploring the range.

Looking deep into the heart of the Superstition Wilderness, near Phoenix, Arizona. Weaver's Needle is in the background.

  The derivation of the name “Superstition” is not even certain. One version is that in the 1500’s, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado apparently gave the mountains that name, based on the Apaches’ claim that therein lay the abode of spirits, ones who did not look kindly upon intrusion, especially in the name of profit.

  Only a few years after Jacob Waltz’s passing, hard-rock gold was discovered not far from the north side of the range, near what is now the little mining town of Goldfield. Millions of dollars were taken from the ground during the heyday of mining operations there.

  That a true in-situ gold deposit does exist in the Superstitions themselves is very unlikely. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the range (in this case, the western end, of which is to where the legends refer) is built-up of thousands of feet of ancient volcanic ash, fused into thick, resistant layers which today have eroded into a maze of pinnacles, ridges, and gorges. Barren volcanic cinders – now rock – and that’s all. Barren of precious gold, that is, but not of dreams.

A maze of golden canyons makes travel through the Superstitions a true adventure. This view is from along the Apache Trail, aka State Route 88.

  Take a look at the Superstition Mountains from a distance, in the setting sun sometime. If you give pause for a moment, they look yellow, even golden. It’s that would-be coating of gold dust out there that you see.

  That and the glimmer in your eyes.


Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Basaltic Moon Hill, as seen from Shaw Butte, looking northwest, in Phoenix, Arizona.

  Rocks arouse feelings. All we have to consider are gemstones to realize that. Though they are small, the power they exert on the wearer, or even the bestower, is legendary. You can make the case that a stone’s power is constructed by advertising, using diamond as an example. Or you can look at an ancient stone like turquoise, for instance, and mull over the probable connections the ancient Hohokam people in our Valley made between it and the sky, water, or coolness.

  Big rocks elicit feelings, too, I think, and I mean big rocks that form things like cliffs, hills, and mountains. One of my favorites is the rock known as basalt.

  Not long ago, I was trying to “get a feel” myself for what basalt evokes. I was driving around Moon Hill (pictured, from Shaw Butte), that little ridge that lies just north of Thunderbird Road, on the east side of I-17 and 19th Avenue. My attempts to go up onto it were to no avail, however, as every road was gated. I probably could have waited at a gate, and slipped through behind someone else’s car. But then if asked, how would I explain what I was doing there? “Yes, sir. Who? Me? Oh, I’m just here feeling the rocks.”

  “Rrrright,” would undoubtedly be going through the mind of my inquisitor.

  Melancholy, mild foreboding, and loneliness are some of the feelings I’ve seen in myself around basalt in other places. I had really wanted to go door to door on Moon Hill, from home to home (and I could see some nice ones up on top), and ask people what they feel living there.

  Maybe someday I will get that chance. It has got to be different from what people living on Camelback Mountain (mostly granite) feel, for example, or from what people around Squaw Peak (mostly schist) sense. That feeling would have nothing to do with the view, or the facing direction.

  This kind of thinking is, by the way, off the scale for most geologists. But not all. There are those of us of a scientific bent that are open to the subtleties of nature. As one old saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” So are the good spirits, I think, and much of the beauty. Illustrating this view of nature, the Japanese have ways of classifying rocks that are unheard of in our Western culture, and I have pursued this subject in other writings (see “First Impressions”).

  Basalt (say buh-SALT, not BAY-salt) is a very dark, heavy rock. When molten, it flows easily. It covers many of the hills along what we call the Black Canyon Freeway (I-17) between Phoenix and Black Canyon City. Along the road you can see black rock, sort of “dripping” off the edges of the hills.

  That look is simply the result of the basalt breaking up into chunks and fragments that roll and slide downslope because of erosion. The solid rock itself forms very resistant flat caps or layers on much of the higher ground north of the metro area, creating scenic backdrops such as New River Mesa and Skull Mesa (mesa means “table” in Spanish).


  Around fifteen million years ago, deep fractures opened the crust of the Earth in the area north of Phoenix, and from within erupted the fiery liquid that then cooled and now covers Moon Hill. The basalt flows in central Arizona are some of the youngest rocks around us. I know, fifteen million years sounds like a long time ago, but it is not, really. Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Fifteen million years represents just a third of one percent of its history!

  I was curious as to the origins of the rock’s name, which was not an easy subject to track down. Apparently the Romans took the name basaltes from the Greeks, who in turn got it from the Egyptians, and it seems to have meant “touchstone”. Another source I saw attributed the word to unknown African sources. But then, Egypt is in Africa.

  The Hawaiian Islands (not an easy place to feel melancholic, I admit) are made mostly of basalt, as are the plains of eastern Washington State (an easier place to be depressed), the Snake River Plain that runs across southern Idaho, and the dark splotches that we see on our moon overhead.

  It covers the seafloors, and if you drive north from Flagstaff towards Page, you can see great long tongues of basalt, now mostly covered by brush, emanating northwards from the San Francisco Peaks, running for miles along Highway 89. In the back-country on the way to Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), in Mexico, are some of the most amazingly picturesque basalt flows I have ever seen.

Recent basalt flows cover the desert north of Rocky Point, Mexico.

  Next time you see some, get out of your car, approach it, spend some time, and see what you think. Or more importantly, what you feel.

On Cloud 9

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Ancient petroglyphs on a basalt boulder in Phoenix, Arizona.

  The first time I walked up the trail on Shaw Butte, I didn’t even notice them.

  It took another trip, and a little exploring, and then I found what I had been looking for: a set of ancient ruins, and some people think, a prehistoric solar observatory. Actually, there is a sign there, posted by the City of Phoenix, asking visitors to respect these antiquities. Just behind a bush, it’s not easily noticeable from the trail, almost as if it had been planned that way. Like, “now that you’ve found this secret spot, please don’t damage it!”

  Just having read my opening lines here, you might already think you know where I am going with this article—another description of some of the Hohokam ruins for which the Phoenix area is famous.

  There is more than that, however, to this saga. These ruins are just part of a bigger picture that I want to present to you. Geology is not just something we study. Geology is something we are. By that, I mean that humans are inextricably connected to planet Earth and are part of its organic evolution.

  Those who think that nature is here for us to use, that it is at our disposal, have it all wrong. We are part of it. We are all one thing.

  For those of you not familiar with which of the peaks around Phoenix is Shaw Butte, you do know it. When traveling down I-17 from the north, it is the mountain on your left as you drive into the Valley of the Sun, just before you get to what we call Central Phoenix. The butte has a grove of tall metallic towers on its summit, and sort of a looming shape that to me has always suggested, “Welcome to Phoenix.” If you drive north on Fifteenth Avenue from, let’s say, Northern Avenue, you will run right into it.

  If you go around to the north side of the mountain, which some would call the “back” side, and look up, you will see a lot of black, rubbly-looking rock. Much of the north side of Shaw Butte is covered with this rock, known as basalt, or here, officially, the “Moon Hill Basalt”. It flowed up and out of volcanic vents around 20 to 15 million years ago. That sounds like a long time back, but actually these are some of the youngest rocks around the Phoenix area. You can see other areas of basalt around the Valley, too, and along the freeway to Flagstaff.

  When you look up at the Moon, the dark areas you see that form the “Man in the Moon” are basalt. Maybe that’s where the name of nearby “Moon Hill” came from.

  Those of you that have studied geology — even just the basics — know the three types of rocks: Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic. The above-mentioned basalt is an igneous rock, once molten.

  “New thinking” scientists now name a fourth rock-type —”Anthropic” rocks — rocks made, modified, or moved by humans. This new classificatory scheme now takes into account what should have been obvious all along.

  Think about how much of the Earth is covered with asphalt, concrete, bricks, shaped stones, and stones transported long distances (like maybe the counter tops in your kitchen). Even little gemstones are rocks which have been cut and modified by humans.

  We are transforming the surface of our planet in ways that other natural processes have never done, and in record speed! Like coral colonies in the sea which build colossal reefs, humans on their own scale add their signature to the world.

  I sat down in the musty dirt, in the middle of what is left of an 800 or 900 year old Hohokam room to ponder this concept, snacking from a bag of “Corn Nuts”, one of my favorite hiking foods. (Not that I’m really into “going native”, but these are very similar to what the Hohokam actually ate back then — roasted corn. How appropriate.)

  It had rained a few days before, and the desert still had that pungent, “wet-bushes” smell to it. The brittlebush all around glowed yellow in the low sunlight. I was all alone, and it was quiet except for the very dull roar of the suburban city stretching off below — traffic noise, occasional dogs barking, a yelled voice here or there, telling the dogs to shut up. I could see far into the distance, miles of human construction laid out everywhere.

  Black boulders surrounded me. They had been piled up to form walls, and pathways, and some sort of arrangement to guide the learned as to when to plant crops, when to get ready for the colder days of the year, when to celebrate whatever. Spiral petroglyphs had been etched into some surfaces. We will never know the exact purposes of this structure.

  Anthropic rocks. Shapes amidst geology, caused and formed by humans.   Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time to linger there. It was an afternoon hike, just a break from work, and I had much more to do that day. I picked up my pack and walked on, past the summit, through who-knows-what-kind-of-radiation blasting out from the gigantic antennas above me.

  Then I found some more ruins, and an even better view.


  It was when I walked up into another set of crumbling walls, down through an old staircase, and out onto a weathered concrete floor that the concept of Anthropic rocks — rocks made, modified, or moved by humans — really sank in.

Downtown Phoenix, Arizona, from the ruins of Cloud Nine.

  The view of Phoenix was grand. I was standing on a semicircular deck, looking out onto a valley below, filled with roadways and houses, and tall buildings in the distance. It was like an immense green carpet laid out there, the look of a garden amongst the barren rocky peaks.

  I had come across the ridge from the Hohokam ruins I had found earlier, and discovered this!

  I tried for a moment to put myself into the mindset of some Hohokam hiker, out for a day’s stroll from the solar observatory I had just visited. You know, like one of those old “Twilight Zone” episodes, where some lonely traveler rounds a bend in a remote road, only to find himself in some future setting, filled with strange structures, the purposes of which are unknown.

  As such, I tried to let my mind just view the scene, without judging it. In the distance, long silvery objects with wings were lifting up, out, and away from near the middle of the sprawl, while others glided down into it.

  My “Hohokam mind” wondered what had happened to the valley I knew, with its low adobe buildings, vast green fields, and long sinuous canals, rippling with life-giving water. My memories recalled how small columns of smoke rose here and there from the flats — signs of cooking, and warmth. There was no roar.

  It had been replaced by this! So similar, yet, so different in its look. There were long straight streets, the patches of greenery laid out in neat square blocks, and I could still see a canal or two. The fields? They were mostly gone, and gleaming buildings of all kinds were everywhere. There were what seemed like thousands and thousands of metallic objects rolling along on the roadways. I could hear distant sounds from them like I had never heard before, like the buzz of insects, but stronger and lower in tone.

  I snapped back to reality. I had once heard of this site where I stood — it was called Cloud Nine. I was standing on the floor of a classy old restaurant which had been named “Cloud Nine”, and it must have been quite a place before it burned down in 1964. A narrow, difficult road had once brought its guests up to this point high on Shaw Butte, where they could gaze out over Phoenix in style.

  You can see this spot today from I-17, as you drive by the mountain. Standing between what are left of its walls, I tried to imagine being there in days gone by, with maybe Sinatra or Sarah Vaughn on the jukebox, the lights of the city just coming on. At one table sat two businessmen talking up a deal; at another, in a dimly lit corner, a couple plotting infidelity over a couple of drinks. I could almost hear the plates rattling, the clink of glasses, and the sizzle of grilling steaks. They smelled delicious.

  Now, all that is left are these decrepit walls and flooring. If it weren’t for the City of Phoenix Park System, these would be gone, too. But here they have been preserved, not out of choice I presume, but because they are too difficult (i.e., expensive) to get at and remove, the land not being open for commercial development. What a great set of ruins!

  I hope the City leaves them alone forever. They have as much character as the older Hohokam ones, with every bit as much right to stay on the mountain. You just need to look at them with new eyes, that’s all.

The now-deserted deck of Cloud Nine, in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.

  Though not with the original artwork, of course, the remaining walls are intricately decorated — some actually completely covered — with all colors of spray-painted symbols, slogans, and initials left by those intent on leaving their mark in the world. In their own way, those would-be artists came here on pilgrimages, whether to celebrate some event in their lives, to make some statement, or just to take in the magnificent view. I thought again about the petroglyphs I had just seen, on the boulders, over on the other side of the mountain.

  And here is where it all “clicked” for me — the subject of Anthropic rocks, I mean. I have always been very wary of “development”. I have always looked at the continual encroachment of human structures onto the natural world as a negative thing. And many times it is, to be sure. But here I realized that it is also a natural thing — a part of nature.

  As I said above, we are part of geology. Humans are modifying the surface of the Earth in drastic ways, and in big fashion. Cities, dams, highway systems, and canals are just a few examples. We are changing the nature of planet Earth faster than any other force. Whether in the form of Hohokam observatories or Cloud Nine ruins; whether in the form of ancient Hohokam cities or our modern-day metropolis, we are geology.

  What the Hohokam called their “city” we will never know. It was a human-made work of geology, situated in the Salt River Valley — a patch of structure on Earth’s surface. We call its new incarnation (appropriately) Phoenix — it too, a work of geological change, much more massive. What further will grow here in the future we can only guess about, and I have a feeling our vision will be way off.

  It’s hard to imagine 80 years into the future, let alone another 800.

First Impressions

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Desolate hills like these give you room to think, or NOT to think.

  It was a crisp autumn day, and I had just crossed over a narrow divide into a broad empty canyon in the White Tank Mountains, just west of town. Until then, that morning, it had all been mostly uphill, and I could finally just “coast” now for a while, even though I was only about halfway through my hike.

  Still mildly sweating, and with slow, steady breath returning, I stood there in the glaring sun, just gazing into the desolate solitude ahead of me. It was empty, and silent. I just had to get out my camera, and take a photo of the lonely magnificence. There was something about that perspective, indeed the very presence within those barren rocks, that could not be denied.

  Look at my picture here. You might ask yourself, “so what’s there here to see?” “It’s just some hills and lots of cactus. There’s nothing there!”

  Precisely. It was one of those “you had to be there” moments, and yet, it was intimately tied to that place, too (and still is). There is an appeal to such views, and it doesn’t happen everywhere. It has to do with the lay of the land, the look of the rocks, in fact their very makeup.

  I’ve talked about this kind of thing before. I mentioned that in Western thought (and science) we give little or no importance to subtleties and feelings. Most other geologists I know would see in that hollow only metamorphic rocks, classified as Precambrian age (around 1.7 billion year old), and a much younger granite, judged to be about 70 million years old (both of these rock formations really are what is there). They would also see nothing of economic value, hence making the place “worthless”.

  But mix a little Zen into the Earth Sciences, and you have a different way of classifying things. According to Oriental wisdom, “every stone has a face.” Every rock looks best when viewed in a certain way, from a specific angle. I would have to agree, and on a large scale it is what makes particular mountains look so appealing, and gives them character.

  I think of that valley and the impression it created in me often. I look at its picture sometimes just to remind myself of how I felt then, how momentarily unburdened of all the clutter in my mind I had been. When I first saw the panorama, the instantaneous perception of that scene was like walking into a dark room, pushing the light switch to “On”, only to have the light instantly “pop” with the flash of a bulb just burning out.

  Think back — you’ve had that experience. Remember how you can visualize the room for a few moments, before the image fades from your brain (and before you run to replace the light bulb)? In the instant the view unfolds, you have the briefest chance to experience the scene without thinking about it. And then you may see aspects you would otherwise never notice.

  There is a Japanese art form known as Suiseki (literally “water stone”), in which natural rocks or stones, in this case small enough to be easily carried around, are valued for their aesthetic appeal. The characteristics that make them so desirable are a combination of suggestiveness, subdued color, balance, and four other aesthetic qualities for which we in the Western world have no precise words: wabi, sabi, shibui, and yugen. These words connote a mental state, felt by the observer.

  “Wabi” translates roughly as a mood of melancholy, loneliness, desolation, stillness, and unpretentiousness. The object evokes a subjective feeling. “Sabi” means ancient, mellowed, seasoned, or mature. “Shibui” connotes quiet, elegant, under-statedness, even refined. And “yugen” can imply obscurity, mystery, the profound, and the subtle, much in the way the moon shines out from behind a pattern of clouds, or a mountainside shows through a layer of thin fog.

  It is not without merit to say that rock formations, hills and valleys, even mountains can display equivalent indescribable characteristics. You may have noticed such feelings yourself somewhere in the great outdoors. You’ve just never thought about them later. You see such feelings expressed in the works of certain landscape painters, especially impressionist artists.

  Walk through some galleries in Scottsdale and take a close look at what various artists are trying to convey. I often wish that I was a painter, and fancy that if I could only master the strokes of brushes and thick oils on canvas, I would go back to the White Tanks, or seek out other such spots, and spend my time trying to capture the essence of landscape.

  The nature of that landscape is in the rocks as much as in anything else out there — maybe more so. Their age, their presence, is something that controls one’s mind and sets one’s mood.

  As with meeting someone new, it’s all in the first impression.


  For more on this subject, go to, click on “GeoArt”, and visit the Japanese Friendship Garden in downtown Phoenix. The whole park is constructed with these concepts in mind.

  Also visit the “GeoScenery” section, by going to the map called
“The Rocks of the Valley of the Sun”, and look at the sequence of views in the White Tank Mountains. If you want to shift back to Western sensibilities you can do that, too, and indulge yourself with geologic explanations galore.

  And then, even better, go visit the Japanese Friendship Garden in person!


Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Surrealistically shaped ancient granite looks

  “How did these boulders get stacked up this way?”

  The tourist who fired off that question to me was impatient, but in a friendly way. We had just started up a trail that wandered over and through a small mountain of weirdly-shaped rocks. Below us lay lush carpets of green, lazy golf courses winding through even more rounded, but smaller, boulders.

  The look from above was that of a carefully tended garden, with tall cacti, Palo Verde trees, and ocotillo everywhere. Bushes surrounding us filled the air with the pungent, sweet, tarry smell of creosote. The warm autumn sun created shadows on the rocks that only accented their beguiling nature.

  Those with me were wearing shorts, tennis shoes, and polo shirts, casually outfitted for the little hike we were on, all eager to learn something about the place to which they had come to escape for a short while the brutal weather back home. Down by the resort, we could see some men that appeared to have just stepped out of a Wall Street office building, looking very smart in their $3000 suits. New arrivals, we all knew. That manner of dress wouldn’t last long. Behind the lobby area there were others wearing not much at all: beautiful people lounging around the pool, margaritas in hand. There were several girls that were …..

  Oh, yes! Back to the rocks.

  The lady was anxious for an answer. She had been pondering an explanation since she had first arrived at the resort several days earlier and had seen the magnificent display of rocks looming above the luxurious lodge. “We don’t have anything like that back home,” she said hurriedly, and then started spewing out what she thought might be possible answers to her own question. “Glaciers did it!” “No?” “Floods?”

  I get asked that question a lot, even from people that live in the Phoenix area, who have grown up around the picturesque granite boulders which provide the exotic backdrop in places like Carefree, Troon, and Reata Pass.

  People’s fascination with them might have something to do with scenes of landscapes remembered from childhood — like maybe from those western movies where outlaws hid amongst such rocks before ambushing the stagecoach. Apaches disappeared into such settings with the cavalry in hot pursuit, and they appear even in scenes from other planets, like the Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk and Spock do battle with an ugly space monster deep within a wilderness of granite shapes and spires. There is something about them that suggests an alien quality.

  But they are not so alien. In fact, in some ways they are the very core of our landscape. Once, I read about an exhibition in New York City, a display of Chinese carvings and garden art in which stone is the central theme. In that show, rocks were called the “Bones of Earth”, and I can think of no more apt name for them here. As we all can see, the landscape of Phoenix is one which has been scoured and eroded by the desert climate right down to the stone within.

  The granite so exposed around here is very old — about 1400 million years old. It intruded into ancient mountain ranges back then, as a molten mass rising from below, squeezed and reshaped by forces on a continental scale. It never made it to the surface, but cooled slowly, slowly. The evidence of this is seen in the large crystals that can be seen just by breaking a piece of it open.

  Later, over the more than one billion years that followed, it became laid bare at the surface. Changes of tension in that process led to fracturing of the rock in many different places and orientations. If you study an outcrop from a short distance, say near The Boulders Resort in Carefree, or the Four Seasons Resort near Pinnacle Peak, you can see that many of the large cracks running through the granite are somewhat parallel to each other. Some run almost horizontally, some run almost vertically, some are diagonal to those.

  The important thing is that they intersect in various places, and when they do, they isolate off chunks of stone, many of which are house-size pieces. As weathering works its toll, the cracks widen out, and sharp corners tend to round out.

  It’s what causes that “stacked” look. They are not piled up at all, like they appear. No glaciers, no floods. It is the way solid rock is breaking down into pieces. Granted, some do eventually roll down-slope, and probably every few thousand years one makes a pretty good “thud”.

  They make for some of the most striking scenery in the world — a setting for which those visitors from Wall Street don’t mind paying to experience.


  You can see other scenes of these formations, and discover more of our area’s fascinating geologic story by going to a map called “The Rocks of the Valley of the Sun”, where you can click on “Black Mountain”, or “Pinnacle Peak”, to begin a series of pictures.


Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Chimney Rocks

  Rocks are my passion. Anyone who looks at my website will realize that.

  But they will also see that my world of rocks spans everything from little ones, like gemstones, to really big ones, like the moon and planets in the sky above. Rock types that cover that whole spectrum are right up my alley.

  And the aspects of rocks that intrigue me the most are not their chemical characteristics, or their economic values, but their relationships with us. It is the “bridge”, so to speak, between rocks and other forms of life, that continuously presents new terrain to explore, and new material for thought.

  This may sound a little strange at first, but when you start to realize how much of your everyday life somehow involves rocks, those seemingly inanimate, cold, hard substances that form our world become a lot more meaningful.

  I was driving south through the Four Corners area a month or so ago, in that part of Colorado where the high peaks of the Rockies just start to open up down into and out onto the Colorado Plateau.

  Golden aspens and land that is more vertical than horizontal gives way there to red rocks and wide open spaces, punctuated by spires and pinnacles of stone, each one with an individual personality. It is where the rivers cease their tumbling and roaring, where they begin to broaden and slow, and where cattle now come to their banks for liquid refreshment. Even the smell in the air changes from cold, mountain, and evergreen, to warm, organic, grasses and desert.

  It is also where you become aware that these are more habitable lands. And they have been that way for quite some time. When you start looking around, you realize, too, that there are ruins everywhere – ancient ruins of homes and structures and temples that mystify us, for you have entered a part of the world where very little is known about the former occupants and why they came and went.

  One such set of ruins towered above me along that road: Chimney Rocks. I had read about it and studied what is known about it before I had started out on that venture, of course. But, as I’ve found is usual with such locales, its countenance and its setting was again more striking than I had expected. And here, too, not only were the ruins of the prehistoric village amazing, their placement was really integral with the rocks. They were put here because of the rocks, and not just the scenic view of them, either.

  Native Americans considered the land inseparable from culture. Temples and sacred spots were not sited in places of convenience, but in places with spiritual connection to the Earth. It’s as if such places “grew out of the Earth”.

  Chimney Rock Pueblo is one such site if I ever saw one. Alongside the rushing Rio Piedra (“stone river”), it sits along a high, steep, constricted ridge of gray and tan Cretaceous-age sandstone, and there is not much room for anything else. To its east are two great pinnacles of rock, looking like two big smokestacks might have looked jutting up from one of those old, long, Titanic-era steamships, when viewed from the side. No smoke emanating, here, however.

  And when seen from the distance below, the village is unnoticeable. It’s only when you get up to it, and walk among its crumbling stone walls and kivas, does the perspective shift. The two towers then look nearly side-by-side, and because there is a gap in the ridge between them and the pueblo, they seem to “float” above the ruins.

Chimney Rock Pueblo

  “Why here?” you might ask yourself. “Why, when all the water is a thousand feet below, would they choose to live here?” Many people and scholars have asked that very same question. There are countless archaeological remains all over the Southwest that puzzle academicians equally. Some such locations appear to be defensive. Some appear to be sited where they were for communications purposes. Some were maybe even situated for upland farming.

  But here, the latest thinking is that besides possibly having elements of the above-mentioned reasons, Chimney Rock Pueblo (or whatever they called it) was, and still is, for that matter, a monumental celestial observatory. It was a means to chart movements of heavenly bodies within the sky, and hence determine the pulse of the seasons.

  Given that, its rulers and inhabitants would have had some pretty valuable information, indeed. With apparently no paper at the time with which to do some figuring, and no timekeeping machines, they nevertheless had developed a system by which they could predict cycles of time – a chart within and of the rocks, so to speak, and their understanding of the skies was far ahead of what most people on the street today could tell you.

  As I write this, we are approaching the Winter Solstice. We also have a Summer Solstice every year, and it usually makes the news or weather report, too. Astronomical terms such as solstice, equinox, and standstill get thrown around a lot. But how many of you actually know what they mean?

  We have so little exposure to the cycles of nature in today’s world that people have lost an appreciation of what is in the sky above. Most of us live in large cities now, and those that even bother to look up at night usually see only a few stars. I get the feeling that many think of them as little lights on a domed ceiling high above – like the sparkles overhead in some kind of giant, worldly discotheque.

  While he was attending one of my stargazing sessions one time, I actually had a surgeon (after I had made a comment about where some star was in the sky at that moment, as if we could see it below the horizon) ask me, in all seriousness, “You mean that the stars go all the way around the world?”

  After all of the science, chemistry, and physics classes, and rigors of medical school that he must have gone through, he had apparently not grasped until that moment, that Earth is indeed a planet in space, and the stars lie in every direction. Only the blue haze of the daytime sky prevents us from seeing them all of the time.

  The ancient peoples of the world, especially their priests and shamans, knew all about the placement of the stars. They lived their lives with a constant knowledge of the heavens, and the solstices, equinoxes, and standstills ruled their calendars.

  Chimney Rock Pueblo is a place (and there are probably many in the Southwest) that was almost certainly sited because of astronomical events. The twin rock pinnacles form an ideal, gigantic “notch”, through which at various times, the risings of the sun and the moon could be observed from the pueblo.


  Like at its man-made, older counterpart, Stonehenge (in England), only on certain days of the year would such events happen. By careful observation over many years, the Puebloans noted that such risings could be used to predict when the seasons would change, when to plant crops, and when to start getting ready for winter.

  As for the terms I mentioned above, following are some brief explanations (and my discussion here pertains only to the Northern Hemisphere). First of all, the beginning of Winter has nothing to do with the fact that it starts to get cold out, per se.

  Because the Earth is tilted on its axis of rotation, relative to its plane of orbit around the Sun, it sometimes is fully tilted away from the Sun, and sometimes fully tilted towards it. When it is tilted fully away, the Sun appears as far south as it can in the sky, and this occurs actually at a precise moment, time-wise.

  Then Earth starts to rock back the other way. That furthest south position can most easily be noted by observing where the Sun rises on the horizon from day to day. If you watched every morning, you would see that on one particular day of the year, it would stop rising farther south than on the previous day, and that on the day following that, it would start rising to the north again.

  That position, and its corresponding time, would be called a standstill, as the Sun’s march would appear to “stand still” for a day, on the horizon, before reversing its direction. In Latin, “solstice” means “stand still”. “Winter” is the name we give to the one-fourth of the year following that astronomical moment. The beginning of “Summer” has a similar, but reversed instant, when the Sun is farthest north.

  The equinoxes are the positions exactly in between the solstice positions (as there are only two solstice positions during the year, there are also only two equinox positions). They have the names Vernal and Autumnal, and mark the beginnings of Spring and Fall, respectively. On those days, the Sun rises directly in the East, and sets directly in the West, and day and night are of equal length (hence “equinox”). The points where the Sun rises and sets on those days are also points on the horizon, likewise marked and noted by megaliths and rocks of the ancients.

  The term “standstill”, when used as such, apart from my explanations here, usually applies to the movements (risings and settings) of the Moon, which goes through similar rhythms.

  Observing celestial events from day to day, and night to night, makes the heavens come alive. For everything is moving, and some of the patterns repeat – predictably so. Watch, and you can see it too. Appreciating the sky will make you appreciate the Earth and the rocks beneath your feet. It’s almost as if the path of the stars ultimately leads one home.

  The Winter Solstice, or December Solstice (to be fair and PC to those in the Southern Hemisphere), occurs on or about December 21, every year. From that moment on, Summer is on its way.